"I Am the Zebra," by Josef Kuhn

Josef Kuhn

Josef Kuhn

Josef Kuhn is the fiction editor for Phoebe, an editor for Rough Beast, and an MFA candidate at George Mason University, where he also teaches. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Columbia ReviewBlinders Journal, and elsewhere. Prior to graduate school, he worked in journalism and media at National Journal, NPR, and Religion News Service.

I Am the Zebra

The man in the zebra suit stood waiting in a little concrete nook behind the Reptile House, picking at something boogerlike encrusted on his haunch. What if he just stood here when the announcement came on? Didn’t come at their command? Ha, that would rile them. He could imagine his boss Burt’s reaction, his face apoplectic, spittle spluttering out of his tiny Creatine-chomping mouth. Throw off the entire moronic drill. Drill wasn’t even the word for it—what it was, was security theater. Reassuring the parent/guardians of the packs of sticky-fingered children in their matching neon T-shirts. Fear not, citizens: If an animal escapes, the Los Angeles Zoo will manage the situation with style and aplomb. The security state continues to expand the tentacles of its—ever-reaching?—all-controlling?—whatever, its culture of fear. As they’d called it in his film studies class at USC. This was what college loans were for—to allow you to fulminate in pretentious diction against whatever crummy job you took to pay them off.

A creepy-calm woman’s voice, the same one that earlier had informed the visitors of the impending drill, came on over the loudspeakers. “Good afternoon, zoo patrons. We hope you are enjoying your visit. Please be advised that an animal has circumvented its container and may be at large in the visitor areas. The animal is non-deadly, and zoo staff are taking measures to secure it now. Please remain calm and make your way to the nearest indoor shelter. Thank you.” Always a drugged-sounding female: elevator-floor announcements, automated phone messages, Siri. Trying to convince us to ignore the gnawing impatience and claustrophobia that comes with our modern condition. Feminism ought to contest this universal practice of harnessing—harnessing and subduing—the female voice to dispel technology-induced angst. Good thought! He would have to tell it to Amida later. 

In the breakroom last week, her eyes had crinkled into a smile as he’d practiced his braying for her. “Don’t you think you’re taking this zebra thing a bit too seriously, Dan?” she’d asked. Her long, shimmery black hair fell from under her uniform cap as she took it off. Goddam, those half-Japanese girls / do it to me every time. The Weezer lyric tended to crop up in his head every time he was around her. 

He’d made a wet whoopee-cushion noise with his lips, the way horses do. “It is not enough to pretend to be a zebra,” he’d said, allowing himself to break character for just one moment. “I must become the zebra.” Then puffed his nose in her face.

“I guess that’s why you got the role. Your unwavering dedication to your craft.” In the two years since graduating from the film and theater program at USC, he had landed only a couple of commercials and a bit part in an episode of House of Curds, a searing docudrama about Wisconsin cheese farmers.

“No, I got it because Burt hates me. MEE. MEE-EEE-EEE,” he’d brayed. An inside joke: Dan Eversole, starving actor and lowly Custodial Assistant, the Most Exploited Employee. Amida had given him the moniker after Dan complained about Burt making him stay late to re-woodchip the rodent cages. Compartments. They weren’t supposed to call them cages, though Dan still thought of them as cages privately, made a point to think of them that way.

“How tough life must be for you,” Amida had said, grinning slyly. 

The announcement was his signal to move. Outside of the shaded nook, the midday California sun beat cruelly down on his matted fur. At least they’d made it easy for him to pick his way through the winding concrete paths—a line of green plastic cones marked the predetermined route. Plus, coveralled zoo staff were lining up at this very moment with noisemakers and riot-shield-type things to channel him toward the waiting nets of the Captors in Adventure Plaza. That was actually what they called them, Captors. It was supposed to be like some big honor to be chosen for the role. Amida was one. Of course, she was the best large mammal specialist they had; she deserved it. But did Burt deserve it? No, Burt did not deserve it. He was nothing but an ex-professional bodybuilder (featherweight class) with a Napoleon complex who had somehow finagled his way into a management position and used it to vent his frustrated ambitions upon others. He had made himself a Captor. A classic abuse of power: capitalizing on one’s office to procure special privileges for oneself. He’d even made that dumbass Franklin a Captor. Whereas Dan was assigned to sprint through the zoo on his hands and feet while wearing a full-body fur suit in 90-degree heat. No surprise there. M-double-E again, all because he sometimes stood still for a few seconds to watch the spider monkeys play or read an information panel on desert tarantulas instead of scooping up tapir shit without pause. The iron cage of capitalism knows no respect for—for—ah freak it. Too hot to think.

Ow. Cushy acrylic hooves were not adequate prophylaxis for pavement-pounding on all fours. If he broke a wrist, could he sue? Burt had specifically instructed him to go on hands and feet. “We’re trying to be realistic here,” he’d said grimly, his pecs popping out of his extra-small golf shirt. He acted like they should all be machines, efficient, poop-scooping machines busting ass at all times. Punctual, disciplined, obedient functionaries, parading calmly into the net. “Aren’t you glad you quit your desk job?” Amida had asked the other day. “Now, instead of shoveling pig-shit figuratively, you get to do it literally.” Franklin had overheard, looked down twitchily when Dan met his eyes, continued punching digits into the microwave. A lost cause. If punch cards still existed, that guy would sleep with his under his pillow. Dan sometimes considered going up to him, shaking his shoulders, yelling, “We still have our dignity, man!” But then dismissed it as too melodramatic. At his last audition, he had tried to ad-lib a little, putting in a bit of his own personal voice. The casting director had cut him off. “Who do you think you are, fucking Will Ferrell? Stick to the script.” The top three buttons of the director’s shirt had been left open, presumably to show off his chest hair, the same way Burt did. 

Zoo patrons pressed up against the aquarium’s glass doors to get a glimpse of the zebra-man loping awkwardly by. Many openly flouted the loudspeaker’s command, standing in line for hot dogs at Gorilla Grill or clumped just behind the riot-shielded zoo staff, holding cell phones over their heads to snap pictures. Well, what did the zoo expect? The Safety Drill was listed on the Zoorific Entertainment schedule, right after Raptor Rapture at 12:30. Dan could feel the many lenses pointed in his direction. He must’ve looked ridiculous. It was disconcerting how, during the day, you couldn’t tell when pictures were being taken. Damn, this suit was baking him. Its black-and-white-striped fur soaked up the sun’s rays like…Brawny Ultra-Strength Towels? Apparently they were ultra-absorbent. He’d seen it on a commercial during Iron Chef last night. —Hold on, back up. Disconcerting how you couldn’t tell when pictures were being taken, because—the decisive permanence of the photo could come at any moment. Or, could be coming at all moments. They could even be taking video—a panopticon. Panopticon of plebeians. Oh, this modern life! Haha. The only thing one could do in situations like this was to laugh. Nobody could see him laugh inside his head. Ha. The last laugh was his. They could enslave his body, but they could never enslave his mind.

My friend the cooommuuunist

The shouting, whirring, honking wall of humans forced him to turn left. He rounded the corner and entered Adventure Plaza, where there were now two rows of riot shields, one on either side, funneling him toward the Captors and their giant net at the far end. Was that Amida down there? Squinting through eyeholes took some getting used to, especially while sweat streamed into your corneas. He saw one tiny figure with a clipboard—that would be Burt—but otherwise couldn’t tell the Captors apart. They were all in hard hats. As if something could go wrong? No, Einstein, for realism’s sake. If you were a real zebra, they would be required to wear protective gear. The zoo has liability.

Two zoo workers in baggy white coveralls broke loose from the rest; each shouldered a gigantic neon Supersoaker. The “tranquilizer guns.” When Dan passed them, they would squirt him, and then he was supposed to start slowing down, as if sedatives were coursing through his veins. How would this ever work in real life? They would shoot horse tranquilizers while zoo staff were lined up right behind the animal? And really, a net? That’s what they’d use to catch a rampaging zebra, a giant volleyball net? It was all so utterly preposterous. He looked forward to getting drenched, though. The heat was getting unbearable. 

Now he could identify Amida, right next to Burt. A couple months ago, Dan had slipped down the service trail behind Flamingo Pond to sneak a granola bar at an odd time, and had stumbled upon Amida sitting cross-legged in a little clearing. She sat very straight and still, facing into the copse of bamboo. Meditating, for godsakes! Sure, her dad was from Japan, but it just showed the kind of person she was. He had tiptoed away so as not to disturb her. Later, though, after he teased her about it in the breakroom, he said, “Teach me something about Buddhism.”

“Like what?” 

“I don’t know, like a koan or something.”

“Hmm…okay.” She was always a good sport. “A long time ago, a man kept a goose in a bottle. It grew larger and larger until it couldn’t get out of the bottle anymore. The man didn’t want to break the bottle or hurt the goose in any way. How would you get it out?”

Dan had stared at her. “That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

He immediately started dreaming up elaborate scenarios that might allow the goose to escape—perhaps the man could cut the bottle in half with a glass saw and, after the goose was out, melt the edges back together; perhaps the man could purchase a magic bean that would shrink the goose temporarily to the size of a beetle. To every answer he tried to give, though, Amida had just laughed and said, “Nope, that’s not it. Keep trying.”

Across the plaza, Amida was chatting with Burt animatedly. As if this were all just a lark, just a carnival game, my darling? Well, admittedly, it did feel like one, what with the noisemakers, cones, eager crowds, et cetera. Like a cruel variation on a mascot race. How did baseball mascots do it? He could barely breathe inside this headpiece. 

It’s not having what you waaant

Here, finally, came the squirt-gun guys. They took aim. Pfff. Each of them sent a single, tiny burst of water at him. That? That was it?! That wasn’t even enough water to give a baby an enema. And the water was hot, like pee. They must have left the guns lying out in the sun. Dan wanted to scream at the guys, “Supersoak me, you motherfuckers!” But he could only neigh.

There had to be labor laws against this. The suit’s scratchy lining was drenched with sweat, the air inside 95% carbon dioxide. He wasn’t slowing down. In fact, he found himself speeding up. He heard indistinct shouting from down near the net. The mob’s eyes bore down on him. They fixed him where he stood with their idiotic, imbecilic grins, bits of dried mustard flecking the rims of their mouths. They would laugh when he fell, when the medics ran out to detach his headpiece and carry him away on a stretcher, heatstroked. Heatstricken? Humiliating, was what it was. Why should he stand for this? Was he not still human? Did he not still retain the power of choice? What am I, he thought, if I do not exercise this last freedom, the existential freedom? I am the zebra. No, this shall not stand. They want zebra, I will give them zebra—I, I, I. The variable they did not take into their calculus when they assigned this miserable role to me.

He stopped galloping and stood up on his hind legs. Shouts and laughter from the crowd; a small boy holding his mom’s hand pointed excitedly. Unnatural! screeched a voice in his head that sounded a lot like the casting director at his last audition. Breaking character! You are a terrible Method actor! —Then again, then again, a real zebra would be running at the net with force. Standing up, he could now garner speed, leverage. It was his sworn duty in this pageant to ensure that zoo staff were capable of securing/containing a wild animal hell-bent on its own freedom, was it not? Hence, he ought to do everything in his power to escape. For realism’s sake. 

“Dan!” He could hear Burt shouting now. “What the—Dan!”

Red Rover, Red Rover, send Zebra right over.

He charged at the space right between Burt and Amida, his front hooves pawing the air as he ran. “Breeee!” Burt’s significantly muscled forehead was knotted into a clump. He clutched both clipboard and net in one fist and a pen in the other, struggling to bring his hands close enough together to make a mark (doubtless some libel against Dan’s performance) while keeping the net stretched taut. Amida looked from Burt to Dan, laughing silently with mouth wide open, cheeks squinched up around her eyes. Booyah, made Amida laugh! “BreeeEEEee!” he brayed again, with feeling, right before he slammed into the net.

—Flash, white thing coming in from left, from part of peripheral vision blocked by mask. Dodge right. Net snags on ear for instant, slides off back. Run on hind legs in other direction, right toward Franklin. Above his twitchy mouth, fear-filled eyes. Yes. Vulnerability. “BREEEEEE!” Dan waved his hooves crazily over his head as he ran straight at Franklin, and, right before hitting him, leaped.

Iiiiiiiii’ve got no one to blaaaaaaame

Franklin flinched. Dan came down hard on the net, broke Franklin’s grip. Rolled ninja-like over it, past the barricade line. Came up out of roll onto feet again. Make a break for it! Okay, Steve McQueen, where to, though? Straight ahead: La Petit Chameleon, the gift store/café. That was where this zebra would run free.

He blew past shocked moms and gleeful kids into the store, where he was surrounded by a bestiary of plush animals bathed in hideous fluorescence. Several customers browsing the shelves looked up, slack-jawed. Left, right, left, right? Straight. He barreled down the central aisle, somebody hot on his hooves. Swerved left just before hitting the register, cut back down an adjacent aisle. Risked a glance over his shoulder and caught a glimpse of Burt through the eyeholes. Huh, never knew that that boiling red scrunched-up anime face could be attained in real life. Looped back along the plate-glass window and knocked over a few plastic snowglobes—whoop, sorry. No, not sorry—sow destruction upon this locale of mindless consumption! Ha!

Gonna tell everyonnne toooo liiiightennn up

Sudden realization: His mind had been playing a Sheryl Crow song for the last few minutes. As if someone had simply dropped the album onto his brain and put the needle in place. Why “Soak Up the Sun”? He didn’t even like that song that much. And probably hadn’t heard it in, like, ten years. Uh, maybe because it’s sunny out, dopewad? 

Something wrapped around his legs and his upper body continued to fly forward. SHITfuck. Hardest shelf ever. Good thing he’d had the headpiece on. He twisted and saw stick-limbed Franklin sprawled out behind him. Diving ankle-tackle; didn’t think the guy had it in him. Should be MVP for that.

As he struggled to get the zebra head off, he felt a wave of foreboding, the future tightening its noose around his neck. He imagined Burt screaming apoplectically. Do you know how much it costs us to run one of these things? The entire drill is compromised! And envisioned himself standing, moving closer to Burt to force him to look up, telling him, Jesus, Burt, get off the roids and lighten up for once in your life. If creativity and independent thinking are too much for your tiny brain to comprehend, then I quit. And flipping the bird for good measure. And there would be Amida, gasping and saying But Dan, you need this job. Please. Don’t do this. Possibly placing her hand on his chest as if to cool his blazing heart. And he’d turn to her and say, I can do whatever I want. It’s just like you said—the mind is free. It cannot be bought and sold. The mind is free! You, Amida—you should quit with me. Tell this man what you really think of him, and let’s go. What’s to stop us? We can go anywhere; we can be anything. Zebras. Walruses. Tramps, truants, eternal backpackers. Let us go to Myanmar, New Zealand, Swaziland, Wyoming! Far from this opera forevermore, money be damned. Do not the birds in the fields get their living? Do they not? Several spectators would whoop and pump their fists like Judd Nelson’s character in The Breakfast Club.

Someone’s hands brushed his, wrangled with the neck clasp, and suddenly it was gone. The head was off; he could breathe. To whom should he be grateful? …Amida. She looked worried. “Thanks,” Dan managed. She nodded soberly. He looked around, expecting to see visitors staring, aghast, or else clapping for his bravura. Instead, a handful of people in the store craned their necks to peer at him curiously; the rest seemed to have lost interest. He was awash in a pile of stuffed zebras that had tilted onto him when he struck the shelf. Amida, Burt, and a few of the other zoo staff stood around him in a little semicircle, watching him oddly. One of them pulled Franklin up off the ground, who checked his elbows for scrapes and bruises. Burt had his hard hat and clipboard under one arm and was rubbing his bald spot. “You alright?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

“What did you do that for? You trying to be funny or something?” He seemed more puzzled than angry.

“I’m never doing this again.”


“Playing the animal. I’m never doing it again.”

Burt’s brow creased into even deeper confusion. “I thought you liked doing it. Being an actor and all.”

Liked doing it? He thought I… Dan’s stomach felt like it had just been through a carnival ride, the kind that hangs you upside down. The rushing that had been pounding in his ears, coursing all the way out to his fingertips, was beginning to recede. 

Not having what you want

He looked to Amida, who was still holding the zebra head, and flashed a grin at her. She smiled back, but warily, mainly with her cheeks.

Burt shook his head. “Get out of that zebra suit, and I’ll talk with you later. I’ve gotta go give directions to the rest of the crew.” He turned to leave.

“I’m sorry,” Dan called out after him. The other zoo staffers who were gathered around began to drift away as well, muttering to each other. Franklin lingered uncertainly for a second. “Sorry,” Dan offered feebly. Franklin mumbled “No worries,” then followed the rest of the group. Only Amida was left.

“You’re crazy, man.” She looked down at him, still sitting in the pile of zebras. Now there was something else behind her smile—pity? A hint of sadness?

“I know.” He wanted to shout It was all for you, but he knew it wasn’t true, and knew it wouldn’t make a difference even if it was. She had never thought of him that way. He looked beyond her, thinking about the koan. How would you get him out? A little girl had picked up a fallen zebra and carried him over to her mom at the cash register. Outside the windows, school groups filed slowly along the winding, winding paths. Without force, without violence to the goose…how would you… Something familiar about the shape of the story. Something he had once or always known, somewhere, in the abscesses of his mind. Leading him, leading him unthinkingly into its groove.  

“Are you okay, Dan?”

The song kept playing: It’s not having what you want / it’s wanting what you’ve got. The really annoying thing was how he couldn’t just switch it on or off. The flakes in the scattered snowglobes settled to the floor, toward gravity, as things will do. The mom would pay with cold hard cash, the wheels of industry would continue turning, and the little girl would go home with a plush animal that would bring her joy for a day, a month, or a year. Then would be discarded, thrown in a landfill somewhere. Which did not negate the joy. Consumption, but not mindless. How would you… The music would continue to play, and the best you could do was try to enjoy it, give into it, go along for the ride. Mindlessly, without mind. Palm trees shivered in the breeze outside, where animals turned over in their enclosures, trying to catch just one more hour of sleep. The mind, the cage, unfree. You wouldn’t. You wouldn’t get him out.

“Dan!” Amida shouted.

“Sorry,” he said. “I’m okay.” His face was tilted up into the store’s fluorescent lights. Fluorescent, incandescent, it didn’t matter what kind of -escent. How many times had he complained about the lighting in a classroom, an office? As if the world owed him something better? There was nothing better. All radiation is light is light is light. All places and times equal, the same battle to become and remain conscious. It filled his pupils, blinding him, whitewashing the inner walls of his skull. 

“Why don’t we get you out of this suit.”

She took his elbow, and he allowed her to lead him away, an uncomprehending beast. For she was the most beautiful captor.